This story will appear in this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated.
For a while there it looked as if the 117th U.S. Open was going to be decided by cute, elfin golfers who together would make a pretty good boy band. Playing in the final group was Justin Thomas, propelled by the record 63 he shot on Saturday while wearing hot-pink trousers and a coral belt. Also in the mix was Rickie Fowler, who is looking more and more like Leonardo DiCaprio and, unfortunately, developing a similar penchant for going down with the ship. For much of the final round cherubic Brian Harman, all 5’ 7″ of him, held a piece of the lead. And then big, bad Brooks Koepka came through.
Koepka, 27, has an square jaw right out of the Pleistocene Epoch and favors some of tightest sleeves on the PGA Tour, the better to display biceps that are about as big around as the waist of Tommy Fleetwood, his long-haired playing partner on Sunday. Koepka likes to tell reporters, “I’m not a golf nerd.” No, he is 6 feet and 197 pounds of whoopass. Last week he clubbed into submission the longest course in major championship history, and along the way he didn’t beat his more ballyhooed contemporaries so much as crush them like an aluminum can against his forehead. Koepka’s macho play—and the effect it had on his would-be competition—was not a surprise to Steve Stricker, who as an assistant captain at the 2016 Ryder Cup was assigned to monitor Koepka in his debut. “He looks like he wants to fight you,” says Stricker. “He looks like he wants to punch you in the mouth. That’s what I like about him—he’s got an edge. For sure it’s intimidating to play against. You get a guy who is built like a linebacker and pounds the crap out of the ball, and then looks over like he wants to brawl, yeah, that has an effect.”
Koepka’s four-stroke triumph at Erin Hills, a vast new canvas in the Wisconsin countryside, was only his second PGA Tour victory, but it shouldn’t rate as a surprise, given his manifold physical gifts and the swagger with which he has always carried himself. Koepka is celebrated in golf circles for his brash civil disobedience at the 2015 British Open at St. Andrews; with high winds causing balls to twitch on the greens, Koepka refused to continue playing despite the admonishments of a tweedy rules official, who made it known that he carried the title of Sir. “I don’t give a f— who you are,” Koepka responded, according to lore. “I’m not playing until my ball stops oscillating.”
Battling to make the Ryder Cup team last summer, he limped through the PGA Championship on a badly sprained right ankle, gutting out a fourth place finish that deeply impressed his soon-to-be teammates. At Hazeltine—where he would go 3–1 to help lead the U.S. to its first victory since 2008—Koepka was paired with Brandt Snedeker in a tense alternate-shot match when he uncorked a cold shank on the 12th. “Worst shank I’ve ever seen,” says Snedeker. “Most people would’ve been freaking out after that.” Still, they were able to halve that hole, and at the next, an exacting 248-yard par-3, Koepka rifled a 4-iron to six feet. “Probably the best shot I’ve ever seen under pressure,” says Snedeker. “It never left the pin. That’s when I said, O.K., this kid’s got something different.”
But as he watched a handful of contemporaries break through at major championships, Koepka says he felt like an underachiever. A late bloomer is more like it. A great-nephew of former Pirates shortstop Dick Groat, who won two World Series and was the 1960 National League MVP, Koepka grew up in Wellington, Fla., dreaming of the major leagues. But when he was a boy his nose and sinus cavity were fractured in a car accident; baseball was deemed too risky, so he switched his focus to golf. Lightly recruited, he wound up at Florida State, where he didn’t win a tournament until his senior year. After flunking out of the PGA Tour’s Q School in 2012, he lit out for the Challenge tour, the minor leagues of the European tour.
Koepka took four Challenge titles by a total of 23 strokes, leading friend and colleague Bud Cauley to observe, “Brooks has won more tournaments in the last six months then the rest of his life combined.” Criss-crossing Europe and parts of Asia to play in podunk events was a growth experience for a kid who enjoyed an admittedly comfortable upbringing. Says Koepka’s Irish caddie, Ricky Elliott, “He’s slept in his car [in Kazakhstan]. He’s slept in a B&B with four of us [in one room] and struggled along the way, and that’s helped him appreciate where he is.”
In late 2013, Koepka was hitting balls at the Floridian Golf Club when a mutual acquaintance persuaded Claude Harmon to take a look at this raw talent. Along with his celebrated father, Butch, Claude was already coaching Dustin Johnson and used to fending off young pros hungry for guidance. “It’s a little like Nick Saban or Mike Krzyzewski looking at a bunch of prospects,” Harmon says. “I was already pretty busy with DJ, so to take on someone else they would have to jump out at you. I watched Brooks hit a couple of balls and went, Wow! You just don’t see speed like that every day.”
After a few more swings, Koepka mumbled, “Man, I hate trying to hit draws.”
“So why are you trying to hit draws?” Harmon asked.
“The guy I’m working with wants me to.”
“And you don’t want to?”
“That’s your fault. If you want to hit fades all you have to do is get the club from here to here.”
Koepka did as he was instructed, launched a few bombs and said, “Man, it can’t be this easy.”
“Well, it has to be, because the sport you’re playing is complicated enough.”
They’ve been working together ever since, just as Koepka’s short-game has greatly benefitted from a long affiliation with Pete Cowen, the Yoda of the Euro tour. Basic mechanical changes and a few simple thoughts unlocked Koepka’s action. “The harder he swings,” says Harmon, “the straighter the ball goes.”
In 2015, the year Koepka won his first PGA Tour event, in Phoenix, Tiger Woods’s former caddie Steve Williams told Golf Digest, “Once in a great while a player comes along who hits a golf ball the way it was meant to be hit. Powerful, piercing, the perfect trajectory. Of the young players out there, one I’ve seen has that special ball flight: Brooks Koepka. Adam [Scott] and I were paired with him at the Open Championship last year, and from his first tee shot on, I thought, This kid is special. Obviously he’s searching to find the other parts of the puzzle, but I haven’t seen a ball flight like that since Tiger, and before that, Johnny Miller.”
Across 2015 and ’16 Koepka had three top 10s in the majors, but something was still missing. Enter Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open champ. Last year Koepka mentioned to his pal that he was going to rent a house while renovating his home in Jupiter, Fla. According to Johnson’s trainer, Joey Diovisalvi, “DJ says to Brooks, ’Bro, stay with me, I’ve got plenty of space. I’ll teach you how to drive a boat.'” Koepka crashed with Johnson for six months and got a close-up look at his ascent to the top of the World Ranking. After a long courtship, this spring Koepka persuaded Diovisalvi to take him on as a client. “He came in as such a cocky little bastard,” says Diovisalvi. “At the time Brooks was 18th in the world and he says to me, ‘I only have 17 spots to go to relieve DJ of his position.'” But Koepka backed up the trash talk with a seemingly limitless capacity for work. “He’ll die on any hill you put him on,” says Diovisalvi.
Many of Koepka’s training sessions now happen alongside Johnson, who delights in hazing his protégé. “It’s a brotherly relationship,” says Diovisalvi. “Brooks emulates everything DJ does. He looks up to him even as he’s getting needled by him.” Dustin’s favorite putdown: “Take your diaper off and start lifting some real weight.”
Over the last three months Koepka has packed on 10 pounds of muscle, and he believed his game was peaking as he arrived at Erin Hills, where he had played the U.S. Amateur Championship in 2011. Facing wide fairways and greens softened by rain, Koepka could bomb away with impunity. (For the week he only once hit more than a 7-iron into a par-4.) With rounds of 67-70-68 he was tied for second and a shot back heading into the final round but, typically, had been overshadowed by Fowler’s flashy bogey-free 65 on Thursday and Thomas’s electric 63, which at nine under set a U.S. Open record in relation to par. These young, telegenic Americans were all seeking their first major championship victory—Fowler had been one stroke off the lead through 54 holes at the Masters in April only to shoot 76 to finish 11th—but for Koepka it was more personal. “He’s never had the acclaim of a Justin Thomas or a Rickie Fowler,” says Harmon. “It gives Brooks a little chip on his shoulder. It drives him.”
Koepka announced his intentions on Sunday with birdies at the first two holes. Fowler and Thomas quickly faded, undone by a series of loose shots and timid putts. Only the feisty Harman was game. The two were tied until Harman bogeyed the 12th hole from the fescue just as Koepka was pouring in an eight-footer to save par at 13. Koepka then unleashed all of his want and will into a burst of three straight birdies that was a testament to his varied talents. Just like that, a tense final round turned into a blowout. On the 18th hole Koepka decided to play it safe off the tee with a 3-wood . . . and nuked his drive 379 yards. His only blemish in a five-under 67 was a three-putt bogey at the 10th. For the week he finished seventh in driving distance, at 322.1 yards a pop, and he tied an Open record for a champion by hitting 86.1% of greens in regulation. (A big man with soft hands, he also finished third in strokes gained-putting.) At 16 under, Koepka tied Rory McIlroy for the lowest score in U.S. Open history. When it was over he said, “This week I honestly don’t think I ever got nervous. I just stayed in the moment.”
Koepka, who by virtue of his victory moved to 10th in the World Ranking, can seem unaffected to the point of being aloof, but on Sunday night, in a small room in the corner of a large white tent that was serving as a temporary locker room, he finally let down his guard. He was sitting at the elbow of a gray-haired gent who was engraving KOEPKA onto a trophy already adorned with so many glittering names.
When the champ was finally handed the finished product, he cooed, “Man, this is so cool.” Koepka then gathered his people for a toast: Harmon and Elliott; new girlfriend Jena Sims, an actress; and agent Blake Smith. They hoisted champagne flutes and cans of beer, while Koepka held a clear glass of brown liquid.
“It’s been a long road,” Elliott said.
Golf’s most dangerous bruiser flashed a big, boyish smile. “But we made it,” Koepka said, and then he took a greedy gulp.